Black Mass (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for brutal violence, language throughout, some sexual references and brief drug use
Running Time: 122 min.
Cast: Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Cory Stoll, Adam Scott, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp
Small role: Juno Temple
Director: Scott Cooper
Screenplay: Mark Mallouk, Jez Butterworth (based on the book, "Black Mass: The Story of the Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob", by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill)
Review published September 18, 2015
Based on the infamous true story from the late 1970s to early 1980s, Johnny Depp (Mortdecai, Into the Woods) stars as James "Whitey" Bulger, a ruthless Irish-American crime boss who climbed the ladder to the top in south Boston as the leader of the Winter Hill Gang. In some part, it helps that his brother Billy (Cumberbatch, The Battle of the Five Armies) is a highly influential politician in the area, but his biggest breakthrough on the fast-track to success comes when a childhood friend named John Connolly (Edgerton, The Gift) happens to be an FBI Agent assigned to take down crime bosses in Boston, and uses Bulger as an informant to take down what was then bigger fish in the city. Bulger is no rat, so he says, but if there's a way to take down his competition while also affording his own activities some protection, he's also no fool either. He takes the offer to exchange information for the authorities looking the other way, and soon both Bulger and Connolly gain instant success and influence in their respective positions, though things get more complicated when the murderous, drug-selling, arms-dealing, extorting, racketeering Bulger's protection allows him to become the biggest fish in the pond.
Black Mass is framed with interviews done through Federal investigations of people that knew Bulger, his crimes and many misdeeds, ostensibly in exchange for reduced sentences. This framing does let us know that, at some point, we're going to see the fall of Bulger to counteract the movie's two-hour rise. Directed by Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace, Crazy Heart), Black Mass is a graphically violent but effective crime biography with an impressive collection of solid actors to support it, even if there is a familiarity to the way it's all presented that prevents it from being a truly notable entry in the mob genre. It does take some time to get moving, but Cooper manages to always keep it interesting and moving forward. The simmer of the film never quite reaches the level of a full boil, but it is effective enough to sate crime genre fans looking for an interesting insider story, and to watch some top-flight character actors at play. One thing Cooper doesn't do so much is play up the upside of criminal success; there's nothing really glamorous about Bulger's lifestyle despite all of the money he's pulling in. In fact, he seems to be perpetually living an empty, soulless experience that is driven more by his need for power and influence than it is for the material things that money can buy.
Depp as Bulger is a mixed bag, as he looks unnatural in the part, with his slight build and obviously fake bald piece that never convinces, as well as some colored contacts to accentuate his Bulger's deep blue eyes; he looks like a man in disguise throughout, and he especially looks worse as he is supposed to be getting into his 60s. Despite a few barely detectable wrinkles, Bulger appears to look the same age regardless of what era we're looking at him in. If you can get past the questionable casting here from the looks department, he does breathe life into the role, and at times can be quite menacing in his ice-cold way of dealing with those who are a bit too loose in their lips, as Bulger sometimes comes across not as a mere mob boss who stumbled his way to success so much as evil incarnate, slithering his way into the minds and hearts of the people around him like a great manipulator, and his influence spreading like a malignant cancer, ruining the livelihoods of all that he touches.
If Depp is matched, or perhaps even upstaged, it's through the powerful work from Joel Edgerton as John Connolly, who exudes both confidence as well as severe weakness throughout, much of it at the same time. "Loyalty" is a word that pops up throughout the film, and one gets the sense from Connolly that this man who was once saved as a kid from harm by Bulger feels that innate sense of loyalty to the man for that one act, wanting to protect this man who once protected him as a boy, and doing whatever he can to keep the sharks -- the authorities -- from swarming around him with blood in their mouths. If there is a tragic figure in the film, it's Connolly, whose own hubris manages to be his downfall, willing to protect this snake to the bitter end, even when Bulger's most loyal of henchmen are willing to play ball with the Feds. The rest of the cast is fine, but most of them are underutilized for something other than their star power, even if they perform well in individual scenes.
If there's something missing from Black Mass it's that sense of dramatic poignancy and insightful thematic material that could have taken a good movie and made it a great one. Certainly, we have the cast here to elevate the movie into one of the best movies of the year, but Cooper and screenwriters Mark Mallouk (first time) and Jez Butterworth (Get On Up, Edge of Tomorrow) keep things straightforward and without much artistic flourishes to leave us with any real feel for the movie as anything other than a true-crime biopic that just tells it like it is. It's a collection of great scenes hanging on a story that's merely OK as presented, leaving you admiring the performances and finding key moments of interest, but by the end of the movie you won't carry away much with you from a context standpoint, either intellectually or emotionally, other than the anecdotal elements of the story of the rise and fall of a crime lord, and the danger of corruption in law enforcement in perpetuating as much crime as it seeks to take down. It's satisfactory entertainment that somehow manages to never wholly satisfy.
©2015 Vince Leo